Whether your water is city water or from a private well, you expect to see crystal clear water pour out when you turn on the tap, not discolored, cloudy or brown water.
With well water, the responsibility for the condition of that water relies on the well owner, and treating your well for impurities is vital to ensure safe, clean drinking water and protect the longevity of your well.
First, don’t worry that you did something wrong. Wells are constantly in flux and can change quickly, thanks to the environment. Many things can cause brown well water, including local flooding and earthquakes.
Let’s examine some of the most common causes and treatment options for how to get rid of brown well water.
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What Causes Brown Well Water?
Several impurities can seep into your groundwater and then be pumped up and out of your tap, discoloring the water, turning it cloudy or muddy looking, and giving it a foul taste.
When it comes to contaminated well water, iron is one of the most common culprits because of its abundance in the earth’s crust. Too much iron in your water can discolor it and give the water a metallic taste. It can also discolor laundry and appliances as well as build-up and clog lines.
The three types of iron present in water are:
- Ferrous iron or clear-water iron because the water comes out of the tap clear, and after standing, it starts to turn red or brown.
- Ferric iron or red-water iron produces red or dark yellow water as it comes out of the tap. When mixed with other impurities, the water can also turn brown.
- Organic iron is often colorless and is usually present in shallow wells or wells with direct surface access.
Don’t confuse organic iron with iron bacteria, a type of bacteria that consumes iron and often lives in well environments. They produce iron in the form of “biofilms,” which appear as slimy deposits, and while they’re not harmful to humans, in high numbers, they can make an iron problem worse.
Until you’re sure the water is clear and safe to drink, boil all water that is a brownish hue before you do anything with it to ensure anything dangerous like bacteria is no longer a threat.
Iron Oxide (Rust)
Rust is just oxidized iron. Oxidation happens when the iron has been exposed to oxygen and water. The chemical reaction then begins breaking down the iron and weakening it, which is how rusty pipes can develop holes, crack, and break.
High levels of iron in your well water can lead to rusted pipes, as well as reddish-brown stains on porcelain and fixtures.
Rusty water in small doses doesn’t pose an immediate health concern. However, bathing in water that contains rust can damage hair and skin as it will strip away natural oils our bodies need to maintain skin elasticity.
Even the best well water equipment can become damaged or be heaved out of place thanks to minor earthquakes and intense flooding. When this happens, silt or sediment starts as dissolved solids in rainwater and can get into your pump and contaminate your water.
Dissolved iron or other metals can cause the water to be cloudy, or once the water settles, it may appear as silt or sand in the bottom of a glass of water or floating on the top. This sediment can damage plumbing, clog filters, and over time erode pipes from repeated wear and tear.
Water that is full of sediment or silt won’t be pleasant to drink and will appear murky, cloudy, and dirty, often taking on a brown, reddish-brown, or grey color. It’s not just the silt that can cause problems; bacterial cultures may also be living in the water, such as E. coli or total coliform bacteria, which are invisible to the naked eye. These can make you very sick when consumed.
Organic Material and Tannins
If your brown well water also has an earthy or bitter taste, there may be tannins in it.
Tannins are naturally occurring chemicals formed from humic acid found in decaying plant and leaf material that then drains into the aquifer. Tannins are found throughout organic plant matter and are often present in large amounts in peat, coal, and even ocean water.
Tannins themselves won’t make you sick in small amounts and may color your water in a similar way to iron, but they are bitter and astringent, making the water unpleasant to drink and staining sinks and toilets.
Testing Your Well Water
Determining how to get rid of brown well water means discovering what is causing the brown hue in the first place by testing the well water for contaminants.
After testing you can figure out the best treatment plan to get your well water back to being crystal clear and safe to drink again.
Many different contaminants of well water can cause brown, cloudy water, so it’s never safe to assume it’s one culprit just because of the color of the water. Well water often has naturally occurring dissolved solids at various safe levels.
For state legislation and regulation in the U.S., The United States Environmental Protection Agency has a website to find legislation regarding testing well water and common problems organized by state.
Many different water testing kits currently available on the market test for the various issues listed above that can cause brown well water. You can test the water at home without the help of an expert.
Begin with iron and rust testing as it’s the most common type of impurity, and then use a broad spectrum test to test for the remainder. Silt and sediment are often challenging to treat and may result from structural issues in the pump or well itself, such as cracks in the well walls.
If you can spend a bit more for detailed results, or if you’re uncomfortable testing the water yourself, you can have a laboratory test the water for specific impurities, and the levels present in the sample.
Once you narrow down the problem, you can move on to treatment and restore your water to clear and pleasant tasting.
Treatments: How to Get Rid of Brown Well Water
Treating well water once you know what the problem is, doesn’t have to be an expensive or time-consuming process.
Well water can turn brown quickly after natural events or changes in the aquifer; businesses have already developed devices and methods that filter or remove problematic impurities.
Most well water filters have one of the following methods of filtration included to eliminate brown water.
If it’s only small amounts of iron and other minerals like manganese and calcium that’s causing you problems, then choose an ion exchange softening device used to soften hard water.
The ion exchanger is placed at the water entry point to the home and will remove close to all of the calcium and magnesium from the well water. This is done as part of the softening process by using sodium ions to create a cation exchange.
Cation exchange involves the hardness ions like calcium being exchanged for a non-hardness ion like sodium. Water softeners such as ion exchange-based devices will also remove up to 10 parts per million (ppm) of iron and manganese, two of the most common impurities.
Water that regularly contains more than 10ppm of iron and manganese may shorten the lifespan of the water softener and may require pre-treatment or a special iron filter.
If your water is turning brown because of large amounts of iron, look for a specialized filter. Many iron filters specifically designed to detect and filter out iron from well water already exist.
In addition to softening water and removing some of the iron from the water, ion exchange will often also have a sediment filter. This bonus can help remove silt and sediment before it makes its way through your pipes and out of your tap.
Replace Rusted Pipes
If your well water tests positive for iron oxide (rust), then the first step before filtration is isolating the source of the rust.
A filtration system will remove the rust from the water, but it can’t fix the cause if your pipes are rusted or damaged. Rusted pipes will continue to leech rust into the water supply until removal.
Removing and installing pipes is a task best left to experts to ensure there are no future issues. It can be an expensive job and is the most costly treatment on this list, averaging hundreds to thousands of dollars, including times of inconvenience as you may be without water until work is completed.
However, the cost is worth the end product as new pipes can help raise the curb appeal for your home and provide cleaner well water.
Air Injection Oxidization
For isolated problems relating to iron and manganese, air injection filters inject oxygen into the well, causing iron to oxidize and precipitate. The rust is trapped in the air injection system, and most filters will then flush the system on a pre-set schedule to remove the debris.
Setting up this system will require a plumber, but it’s virtually maintenance-free after the installation. In addition to removing iron from the well water, most also come with a sediment filter and a water softener for added convenience.
While this filter system works well for iron and certain minerals that oxidize, it won’t work for issues relating to tannins or bacterial cultures.
You can see the best air injection oxidation iron filters here.
Greensand filters operate on the same principles as air injection oxidization. They use a coating of manganese oxide instead of injecting oxygen into the water. The layer oxidizes the iron in the water, and they turn from dissolved solids into solids.
Those iron or impurity solids sink to the bed of the filter until they’re eventually washed away with the help of a purple powder called potassium permanganate and the process resets with a clean filter once more.
The choice between air injection oxidization and greensand filters comes down to personal preference, installation, and final cost. Both methods remove iron from well water effectively through very similar processes.
In combination with other filtration systems, sediment filtration uses one or multiple filters to remove particulates of matter like dirt, dust, and rust from the water. This process clarifies the water but doesn’t address any dissolved solids or chemicals in the water.
As sediment and silt can damage more delicate filters, many water purification methods like water softeners, UV purification, and reverse osmosis will feature a sediment filter as the first plan of attack for discolored water. These filters remove more significant bits of matter before more delicate work like ion exchange, allowing it to work more efficiently.
A sediment filter may not solve the problem by itself, but it is an integral part of the team.
Also called UV purification or disinfection, these systems neutralize living organisms such as bacteria and parasites by damaging their DNA and preventing them from reproducing with ultraviolet wavelengths.
A highly effective method for unsafe water, UV purification, requires clear water as cloudy water can interfere with the wavelengths. Then, filtering after UV purification is necessary to remove dead, invisible microorganisms.
See the top UV filters here.
Another effective method for getting rid of brown well water is reverse osmosis.
The many stages of filtration can remove close to 100% of organic material from the water, including bacteria, sulfur, lead, iron, and many other pollutants that you wouldn’t want to drink or use to clean.
The dirty water is pushed through the reverse osmosis membrane, filtering and cleaning it. As the water pushes through, it can also change the pH and reduce hardness simultaneously.
This system is best installed before the water heater, so the entire house benefits from clean water.
However, placing smaller systems near the kitchen sink and drinking water lines can ensure that the water you drink is pure and clean.
Installation of a reverse osmosis system will likely require a plumber, but it should clear up most problems.
Overall, the cause of your discolored well water will influence which treatment option will be the most effective when it comes to how to get rid of brown well water.
Suppose your contaminated well water is due to multiple types of impurities. In that case, it may be beneficial to treat everything at once with a more complex system instead of multiple less effective ones.